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Chris Nickson

THE BLOOD COVENANT . . . Between the covers

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One of my sons was at Leeds University, and my impression of the city during visits either to move house or to bring food and supplies, was of a place very much sure of itself, embracing the past while relishing a vibrant future. But this was largely Headingly, the university quarter, full of bookshops, trendy cafes and largely peopled by the offspring of comfortable middle class people like me and my wife.

TBCChris Nickson’s Leeds is a very different place. In the Tom Harper novels (click link) and in this,  the latest account of the career of Simon Westow, thief-taker, things are very, very different. This is Georgian England (1823, in this case) and Westow – in an age before a regular police force – earns his living recovering stolen property, for a percentage of its value. He has no judicial authority, save that of his quick wits, his fists and- occasionally – his knife. Recovering from a debilitating illness, Westow is back on the streets, and is juggling with several different investigations. A man has been hauled out of the river. His throat has been fatally slashed, and one of his hands has been hacked off. His brother hires Westow to answer ‘who?’ and ‘why?’.

A rich and powerful Leeds entrepreneur called Arden sets Westow the task of recovering a pair of valuable candlesticks, stolen from his son. But when the investigation is concluded, all too easily, Westow is forced to wonder if he is not being used as a dupe in some larger scheme. To add to his workload, Westow sets out to avenge the deaths of two lads, apparently starved then beaten to death by brutal overseers at a Leeds factory owned by a mysterious man named Seaton.

Westow’s assistant is a deceptively fragile young woman called Jane. Raped by her father and then thrown out on the street by her mother, she has learned to survive by cunning – and a fatal ability to use a knife, without a second thought, or her dreams being haunted by her victims. She has, to some extent, ‘come in from the cold’ as she no longer lives on the street, but with an elderly lady of infinite kindness.

As Leeds is cut off from the rest of the world by deep snow, there are more deaths, but few answers. The only thing that is clear in Westow’s mind is that there is that – for whatever reason – a blood covenant exists between Arden and Seaton. Two rich and powerful men who have the rudimentary criminal justice system within Leeds at their beck and call. Two men who want ruin – and death – to come to Westow and those he loves.

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Before we reach a terrifying finale at a remote farm in the hills beyond Leeds, Nickson demonstrates why he is such a good – and impassioned – novelist. He burns with an anger at the decades of of injustice, hardship and misery inflicted on working people by the men who built industrial Leeds, and made their fortunes on the broken bodies of the poor strugglers who lived such dark lives in the insanitary terraces that clustered around the mills and foundries. In terms of modern politics, Chris Nickson and I are worlds apart and there is, of course, a separate debate to be had about the long term effects of the industrial  revolution, but it would be a callous person who could remain unmoved by the accounts of the human wreckage caused by the huge technological upheavals of the 18th and 19th centuries.

There is. of course, a noble tradition of writers who exposed social injustice nearer to their own times – Charles Dickens, Charles Kingsley, Robert Tressell and John Steinbeck, to name but a few, but we shouldn’t dismiss Nickson’s anger because of the distance between his books and the events he describes. As he walks the streets of modern Leeds, he clearly feels every pang of hunger, every indignity, every broken bone and every hopeless dawn experienced by the people whose blood and sweat made the city what it is today. That he can express this while also writing a bloody good crime novel is the reason why he is, in my opinion, one of our finest contemporary writers. The Blood Covenant is published by Severn House and is out now.

ON MY SHELF . . . January 2022

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TS Eliot thought that April was the cruelest month, but I reckon he was wrong. I’ll go for January, every time. The joys of Christmas are reduced to a few deflated plastic Santas, only the last dregs of that litre bottle of Baileys remain and – for some – a reckoning with a credit card provider awaits. Yes, the days are getting longer, by tiny increments, but the metaphorical rebirth that Spring brings seems an age away. Thank God, then, for books. I am grateful to publishers and publicists for these arrivals:

THE LENSKY CONNECTION by Conrad Delacroix

This political thriller is set in the uncertain days of post communist Russia, when the old certainties – grim as they were – were being replaced by a power struggle between oligarchs, gangsters, and those who hedged their bets as to which new power group was most likely to succeed. Major Valery Grosky is a Federal Security Bureau officer fighting organised crime, but when he is pulled off normal duties to build a case against one of the oligarchs, he finds links that run between the most powerful politicians in both Russia and America. This dangerous knowledge plunges Grosky into a fight to save not only his career – but his life. The Lensky Connection is published by Matador, and is available now.

HIVE by April Doyle

There can’t be too many books where bees are the main characters. I seem to remember that in A Slight Trick of The Mind, a Sherlock Holmes homage from Mitch Culln, bees played a pivotal part, but this novel is centred on a criminal conspiracy involving the death of bee colonies and the attempts of a research entomologist Dr Annie Abrams to prevent an ecological disaster. To enter a prize draw to win a copy of the book, go to April Doyle’s Twitter page which is @aprilcdoyle. This will be out on 28th January and is published by The Book Guild.

THE DIGNITY OF SILENCE by June Felton

This book begins in the turmoil of Prague in 1942, where the every breath taken and every move made by the Czech people are controlled by their Nazi masters.  Ernst – and his daughter – have managed to escape to London, but the ensuing years only enhance the sense of guilt he feels, and when he finally returns to the city of his youth, old grievances and bitter memories threaten his sense of himself, and what he once was. Also published by The Book Guild, The Dignity of Silence is out now.

ONE STEP TOO FAR by Lisa Gardner

Sometimes, being a book reviewer feels like wading through a fierce, tugging torrent of flood water. Make a wrong step, and you are done for. Fortunately, there are some authors who provide rock-solid and reliable stepping stones, and Lisa Gardner is one such. Her latest novel is the second in the Frankie Elkin series, following on from Before She Disappeared. You can read my review of that here, but now Frankie returns to discover the truth about a young man who disappeared years ago during a stag weekend. As Frankie and the missing man’s friends try to retrace his steps, they are unaware that they are heading into deep trouble.  This is a Penguin book, and will be published on 20th January. (The cover image is the proof copy)

A FATAL CROSSING by Tom Hindle

This debut novel is set on a transatlantic liner travelling to New York in 1924.  The Endeavour has 2,000 passengers – and a killer – on board, as well as James Temple, a dtermined Scotland Yard inspector. When an elderly gentleman is found dead at the foot of a staircase, ship’s officer Timothy Birch is ready to declare it a tragic accident. But Temple is certain there is more to this misfortune than meets the eye. This is a must for those who like period CriFi and locked room – albeit of a nautical kind – mysteries. Published by Penguin, A Fatal Crossing will be on the shelves from 20th January. Originally from Leeds, Tom Hindle now lives in Oxfordshire, where he lives with his fiancée. He is Inspired by masters of the crime genre, from Agatha Christie to Anthony Horowitz.

CITY OF THE DEAD by Jonathan Kellerman

I don’t know why I should term this “a confession”, but I absolutely love the Alex Delaware/Milo Sturgis novels. More erudite reviewers than I might scoff and summon up metaphors of comfortable slippers and cardigans, but they can go forth and multiply. Yes, there is a formula. Yes there are a several well-worn-grooves, like Milo’s gayness, his gluttony, Alex Delaware’s girfriend’s luthier skills, and the ever-present bloody dog, but the books are superbly written, and Kellerman deserves all the success that comes his way. Here, a corpse discovered almost by accident in a wealthy LA suburb proves to be a professional colleague of Alex, and the case takes on a disturbing – and deeply dangerous aspect. This is also from Penguin, but you will have to wait until 17th February to get your hands on a copy.

AND ON MY KINDLE

TBC KIndleA new book from Chris Nickson is always a joy, even if the times and circumstances he writes about are seldom a cause for celebration. His cerebral connection with the downtrodden and exploited people who once walked the streets of his native Leeds is almost tangible, and here his words burn white hot as his Georgian thief taker – Simon Westow – becomes involved in several cases at once. He is determined to avenge two boys brutalised in a local mill, while also trying to solve the mystery of a corpse dragged from the local river, throat cut and minus a hand. All this while unwillingly coming to the attention of one of the richest – and most dangerous men in the city. Expect another star turn from the enigmatic – but deadly – assassin known only as Jane, as a ghost from her past threatens to disturb her fragile equilibrium. The Blood Covenant is from Severn House and is available now. Regular visitors to Fully Booked will know I am a great admirer of Chris Nickson. My thoughts on his books are here.

CRIME ACROSS ENGLAND . . . 3: Scunthorpe and Leeds

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Screen Shot 2021-10-30 at 18.48.53A trip to Scunthorpe might not be too high on many people’s list of literary pilgrimages, but we are calling in for a very good reason, and that is because it was the probable setting for one of the great crime novels, which was turned into a film which regularly appears in the charts of “Best Film Ever”. I am talking about Jack’s Return Home, better known as Get Carter. Hang on, hang on – that was in Newcastle wasn’t it? Yes, the film was, but director Mike Hodges recognised that Newcastle had a more gritty allure in the public’s imagination than the north Lincolnshire steel town, which has long been the butt of gags in the stage routine of stand-up comedians.

Author Ted Lewis (right) was actually born in Manchester in 1940, but after the war his parents moved to Barton-on-Humber, just fourteen miles from Scunthorpe. Lewis crossed Screen Shot 2021-10-30 at 18.54.40the river to attend Art college in Hull before moving to London to work as an animator. His novels brought him great success but little happiness, and after his marriage broke up, he moved back to Lincolnshire to live with his mother. By then he was a complete alcoholic and he died of related causes in 1982. His final novel GBH (1980) – which many critics believe to be his finest – is played out in the bleak out-of-season Lincolnshire coastal seaside resorts which Lewis would have known in the sunnier days of his childhood. In case you were wondering about how Jack’s Return Home is viewed in the book world, you can pick up a first edition if you have a spare £900 or so in your back pocket.

There is a rather arcane conversation to be had about the original name Jack’s Return Home. Yes, Carter’s name is Jack, and he returns to his home town to investigate the death of his brother. But take a look at a scene in the film. Carter visits his late brother’s house, and amid the books and LPs strewn about, there is a very visible copy of a Tony Hancock record, Check out the discography of Tony Hancock LPs, and you will find a recording of The East Cheam Drama Festival and one of the plays – a brilliantly spoof of a Victorian melodrama – is called …….. Jack’s Return Home.

You can find out much more about Ted Lewis and his books by clicking the image below.

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Before we leave the delights of ‘Scunny’, here’s a pub quiz question. Three England captains played for which Lincolshire football team? The answer, of course, is Scunthorpe United. The three captains?
Kevin Keegan – Scunthorpe 1966-71, England captain 1976-82
Ray Clemence – Scunthorpe 1965-67, England captain once, in a friendly against Brazil
Ian Botham – Scunthorpe 1980-85, England (cricket) captain 1980-81

Ouch! Anyway, back to crime fiction and we start up the Bentley and head into darkest Yorkshire to meet a policeman and his family in the city of Leeds.

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Screen Shot 2021-10-25 at 19.01.43Does Chris Nickson preach? Absolutely not. This is the beauty of the Tom Harper books. No matter what the circumstances, we trust Harper’s judgment, and we can only be grateful that the struggles and sacrifices that he and his wife endured paid – eventually – dividends. The books are relatively short, but always vibrant with local historical detail, and I swear that I my eyes itch with the tang of effluent from the tanneries, and the sulphurous smoke from the foundries. We also meet real people like Herbert Asquith, Jennie Baines and Frank Kitson. Chris Nickson takes them from the dry pages of the history books and allows our imagination to bring them to life. For detailed reviews of some of the Tom Harper books, click the author’s image (left)

BRASS LIVES . . . Between the covers

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The prolific and ever-reliable Yorkshire author Chris Nickson has been writing his Tom Harper series since 2014 when he introduced the Leeds copper in Gods of Gold. Since then he has stuck to the  theme of metal in the book titles, and now we have Brass Lives. Harper is now Deputy Chief Constable of the city where we first met him as a young detective in the 1890s.

As is customary, the action doesn’t stray much beyond the city and its surrounding (and rapidly diminishing) countryside, but a slightly exotic element is introduced by way of two American gangsters. One, Davey Mullen, was born in Leeds, but emigrated across the Atlantic, where he has found infamy and wealth as a New York gangster. He has returned to his home town to visit his father. Louis Herman Fess, on the other hand has no interest in Leeds other than the fact that it is the current whereabouts of Mullen. Fess is a member of the delightfully named Hudson Dusters gang. They shot rival hoodlum Mullen eleven times, but he survived, and it seems as if Fess has come to West Yorkshire to resolve unfinished business. When Fess is found shot dead, Mullen is the obvious suspect, but try as they may, Harper and his team can find no evidence to link Mullen to the killing.

BrassPolitics are never far away in Chris NIckson novels, and in this case it is the enthusiasm of his delightful wife, Annabelle, for the Suffragist cause that takes centre stage. Note the word ‘Suffragist’ rather than ‘Suffragette’, a term we are more familiar with. The Suffragists were the earliest group to seek emancipation and electoral parity, and they believed in the power of persuasion, debate and education, rather than the direct action for which the Suffragettes were later known. Annabelle has always been careful not to embarrass her husband by falling foul of the law, but she plans to march alongside other campaigners in a march which is shortly due to enter Leeds. (See footnote * for more details) Annabelle’s plans are, however, thwarted at the last moment by a cruel  twist of fate.

There is more murder and mayhem on the streets of Leeds and Tom Harper finds himself battling to solve perhaps the most complex case of his career, made all the more intractable because he faces a personal challenge more daunting than any he has ever faced in his professional life. Guns have played little part in Harper’s police career thus far, but the theft of four Webley revolvers – plus ammunition – from Harewood Barracks, and the subsequent purchase of the guns by members of the Leeds underworld, adds a new and dangerous dimension to the case.

Nickson’s love for his city – with all its many blemishes – is often voiced in the thoughts of Tom Harper. Here, he declines the use of his chauffeur driven car and opts for Shanks’s Pony:

“A good walk to Sheepscar. A chance to idle along, to see things up close rather than hidden away in a motor car where he passed so quickly. All the smells and sounds that made up Leeds. Kosher food cooking in the Leylands, sauerkraut and chicken and the constant hum of sewing machines in the sweatshops. The malt from Brunswick brewery. The hot stink of iron rising from the foundries and the sewage stink of chemical works and tanneries up Meanwood Road. Little of it was lovely. But all of it was his. It was home.”

Harper, rather like WS Gilbert’s Ko-Ko, has a little list. It contains all the victims – and possible perpetrators – of the spate of crimes connected to Davey Mullen. One by one, through a mixture of persistence, skill and good luck, he manages to put a line through most of them by the closing chapters of Brass Lives. The book ends, however, on a sombre note, rather like a funeral bell tolling: it warns of a future that will have devastating consequences not only for Tom Harper, his family and his colleagues, but for millions of people right across Europe.

I believe that this series will be seen by readers, some of whom are still learning to read, as a perfect sequence that epitomises the very best of historical crime fiction. The empathy, the attention to detail, and the raw truth of how our ancestors lived will make the Tom Harper novels timeless. Brass Lives is published by Severn House in hardback, and is available now. It will be out as a Kindle in August. For reviews of other novels in this excellent series, click on the graphic below.

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*The Great Pilgrimage of 1913 was a march in Britain by suffragists campaigning non-violently for women’s suffrage, organised by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). Women marched to London from all around England and Wales and 50,000 attended a rally in Hyde Park.

TO THE DARK . . . Between the covers

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Screen Shot 2021-01-03 at 21.02.58I am delighted to say that my first review for 2021 is a new book by the reliably excellent story-teller, Chris Nickson. For those new to his books, he is a widely travelled former music journalist, who has rubbed shoulders with some of the big names in rock, but now pursues a rather more sedentary lifestyle in the Yorkshire city of Leeds. When he is not tending his treasured allotment, he writes historical novels, based around crime-solvers across the  centuries, most of them based in Leeds.

You can click the link to check out his late 19th century novels featuring the Leeds copper Tom Harper, but his latest book takes us back a little further, to Georgian times. Leeds is undergoing a violent transformation from being a bustling, but still largely bucolic centre of the wool trade, to a smoky, clattering child of the Industrial Revolution.

There are fortunes to be made in Leeds, but crime is still crime, and Simon Westow is known as a thief-taker. Remember, this is before the emergence of a regular police force, and what law there is is enforced by (usually incompetent) town constables, and men like Westow who will recover stolen property – for a fee.

the-darkWestow is a man who has survived a brutal upbringing as an institutionalised orphan, and there is not a Leeds back alley, courtyard or row of shoddily-built cottages that he doesn’t know. He doesn’t work alone. He has an unusual ally. We know her only as Jane. Like Westow, this young woman has survived an abusive childhood, but unlike Westow – who isn’t afraid to use his fists, but is largely peaceable – Jane is a killer. She carries a razor sharp knife, and uses it completely without conscience if she is threatened by men who remind her of the degradation she suffered when younger.

When a petty criminal is found dead in a drift of frozen snow, Westow frets that he will be linked with the murder as, only a week or so earlier, he had completed a lucrative assignment that involved returning to their owner stolen goods that had come into the hands of the dead man. Instead of being harassed by the lazy and vindictive town constable, Westow is asked to try to solve the crime. It seems that two aristocratic officers from the town’s cavalry barracks might be involved with the killing, and this sets Westow a formidable challenge, as the soldiers are very much a law unto themselves. Meanwhile a notebook has been found which is connected to one of murdered criminal’s associates, but it reveals little, as it is mostly in code. Someone cracks the cipher for Westow, but he is little the wiser, especially when the text contains the enigmatic phrase ‘To The Dark.’

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The discovery of a stolen handwritten Book of Hours, potentially worth thousands of gold sovereigns, further complicates the issue for Westow, and when the seemingly invincible Jane suffers a crippling injury, his eyes and ears on the Leeds streets are severely diminished. Still, the significance of ‘To The Dark’ escapes him, and when his life and those of his wife and children are threatened he is forced to face the fact that this seemingly intractable mystery may be beyond his powers to solve.

As ever with Chris Nickson’s novels we smell the streets and ginnels of Leeds and breathe in its heady mixture of soot, sweat and violence. In one ear is the deafening and relentless collision of iron and steel in the factories, but in the other is the still, small voice of the countryside, just a short walk from the bustle of the town. Nickson is a saner version of The Ancient Mariner. He has a tale to tell, and he will not let go of your sleeve until it is told. To The Dark is published by Severn House and is out now.

BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2020 . . . Best Historical Crime

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All historical crime writers have two main tasks; first, to pose a plausible mystery, whether that is a murder to be solved or a conspiracy to be unraveled; second, they have to do their period research, and get it spot on, otherwise there will be an endless queue of sharp-eyed nit-pickers who will be ready to pounce on the slightest inaccuracy or anachronism. The very best of these writers have a third skill- and that is to weave the first two tasks together into a seamless cloth so that the reader is back in time, be it fifty, one hundred, or three hundred years ago, and completely at one with the protagonists of the story. Here are four historical crime novels that I have loved during 2020. To read the full review, just click the title.

THE MOLTEN CITY by CHRIS NICKSON

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THE MUSIC BOX ENIGMA by RN MORRIS

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THE TAINTED by CAUVERY MADHAVAN

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BEST HISTORICAL CRIME 2020
THE NIGHT RAIDERS by JIM KELLY

Screen Shot 2020-12-11 at 18.32.03I have long been a fan of Jim Kelly’s other two series, the Philip Dryden books and the Peter Shaw stories which, although firmly set in the present day, always feature plot lines where history has an unpleasant habit of intruding on the present. With this third set of books – set in 1940s Cambridge – we are ‘in’ history, albeit one which is in living memory for many people. Detective Inspector Eden Brooke is a fascinating character. Physically damaged and mentally scarred by his horrific treatment as a WW1 prisoner of war, he does his job thoughtfully and with great sensitivity as he watches civilian Cambridge struggle to come to terms with what it really means to be at war. In the earlier books in the series, we are in the so called  ‘phony war’, but as the title suggests, Night Raids sees the full horror of total war come to the streets of the city. For anyone new to Jim Kelly’s books, you can learn more by clicking on his photograph (above right).

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THE MOLTEN CITY . . . Between the covers

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TMCWe first met Leeds policeman Tom Harper in Gods of Gold (2014) when he was a young CID officer, and the land was still ruled by Queen Victoria. Now, in The Molten City, Harper is a Superintendent and the Queen is seven years dead. ‘Bertie’ – Edward VII – is King, and England is a different place. Leeds, though, is still a thriving hub of heavy industry, pulsing with the throb of heavy machinery. And it remains grimy, soot blackened and with pockets of degradation and poverty largely ignored by the wealthy middle classes. But there are motor cars on the street, and the police have telephones. Other things are stirring, too. Not all women are content to remain second class citizens, and pressure is being put on politicians to consider giving women the vote. Sometimes this is a peaceful attempt to change things, but other women are prepared to go to greater lengths.

This small but increasingly vocal movement provides one of two plot threads in what is, to my mind, Chris Nickson’s finest novel yet. Prime Minister HH Asquith and his Home Secretary Herbert Gladstone are due to visit Leeds, and it will be Harper’s task to make sure that the visit passes off peacefully. He knows there is likely to be a protest from unemployed men whipped up by anarchist Alf Kitson, but his greatest fear is that a demonstration led by suffragette Jennie Baines will provoke more intense publicity. At this point, it is essential to point out the difference between suffragettes and suffragists. The latter have the same aims as the former, but they are avowedly peaceful in their methods. Harper’s wife Annabelle is a suffragist. She has worked for women’s rights for many years, and has passed on her zeal to their teenage daughter Mary.

The parallel thread in The Molten City begins when Harper receives an anonymous letter:

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As he uses his local knowledge and that of his older officers, Harper begins to piece together a jigsaw. As the picture begins to take shape, it is clear that it is one that contains elements of tragedy, greed, desperation – and downright criminality, and that solving the puzzle will bring joy to no-one. As the past players in this old drama start to realise that the past is catching up with them, anxiety leads to violence,and violence leads to murder.

There are so many dazzlingly good elements to this novel. Nickson, like many of his readers is someone of the twentieth century, and he has a keen eye and ear for little social mannerisms that certainly struck a chord with me. As Annabelle imagines her husband in a Chief Constable’s uniform, she says:
You’d look a right bobby-dazzler.”
Only those of us who were brought up having their tea made in a pot will remember this gesture:
“She felt the side of the teapot and poured herself another cup.”
Teenagers were as hungry in 1908 as they are today, but few sit down with their parents at a set table and have their meal:
“She’d already cleaned her plate right down to the pattern and was working her way through the suet pudding.”

Tom Harper is still fit, active, and able to handle himself in a scrap, but like Tennyson’s Ulysses who laments tho we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;” he is all too aware of the passage of time:
“And it was a detective’s job to follow every possibility. That was what his old boss, Superintendent Kendall, had instilled in him when he was starting out in CID. Another one who was dead now; Harper had filled his shoes at Millgarth. Billy, Kendall, so many others …very soon the dead in his life would outnumber the living.”

Nickson orchestrates the dramatic disorder – based on real events – of the Prime Minister’s visit with panache and the skills of a born storyteller. We know – as does Harper himself – that finding the truth about the child stealing will benefit no-one alive or dead, but he is a policeman who must do his duty while being all too well aware that the truth is frequently uncomfortable.

The Molten City is published by Severn House and is out now. If you want to find out more about Chris Nickson and his books, then click the image below.

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BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2019 . . . Best historical crime

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I have always been a fan of historical fiction and, more recently, crime fiction set ‘back in the day’. Sadly, there are those writers whose thirst for period accuracy produces lavish costume drama at the expense of a decent plot and good storytelling. Happily, the five books on my 2019 shortlist don’t fall into that trap – take a look, and if you haven’t read them yet, do so – you won’t be disappointed.

Screen Shot 2019-12-13 at 19.34.11The Familiars by Stacey Halls was one of the publishing successes of 2019, and rightly so. The evocative visual presentation was matched by superb writing and the conviction of a natural storyteller. The story is not a conventional crime mystery, but involves suspicion, injustice, intrigue, political chicanery and personal bravery. We are in rural Lancashire in the early years of the seventeenth century and young Fleetwood Shuttleworth has been married off to a wealthy landowner. Far away in London, King James is obsessed with a fear of witches and daemons, and those anxious to please His Majesty are falling over themselves to demonstrate their loyalty. Fleetwood’s new home, Gawthorpe Hall, sits under the looming Pendle Hill, and all around the district, harmless old women – and some not so old – are being rounded up as witches. Fleetwood is under pressure from husband Richard to provide a male heir and when, after several miscarriages, she seeks the help of a young peasant midwife, Alice Gray, her actions put her in direct conflict with the King’s men.

thg-coverChris Nickson’s historical novels may be narrow in geographical scope – they are mostly set in Leeds across the centuries – but they are magnificent in their emotional, political and social breadth. In The Hocus Girl, we meet Simon Westow who earns his living as a thieftaker. In America they still have them, after a fashion, but they call them bail skip tracers, or bounty hunters. Leeds in the 1820s had no police force except inept and frequently infirm Parish Constables, and so thieftakers pursued criminals on commission from victims of crime. Westow has a formidable ally in the shape of a teenage girl called Jane. Sexually abused as a youngster, she is ruthless and streetwise, and God help the man who mistakes her for a waif. Westow and Jane have a different kind of fight on their hands here, as they try to prevent a campaigner for social justice being sent to the gallows by political conspirators.

tsm-coverSW Perry has written an excellent thriller about religious extremism, media manipulation and political treachery. The fact that The Serpent’s Mark is set in Elizabethan London rather than 2019 can only make the reader wonder at how little things have changed. Nicholas Shelby is a physician who, despite his relative youth, has served on the battlefields of Europe and has emerged from a debilitating period of alcoholism caused by the tragic death of his wife and child. With many a real life character – including Robert Cecil and John Evelyn – making an appearance, Shelby becomes involved in a desperate affair which seeks to supplant Queen Elizabeth herself with a hitherto unknown child of Mary Tudor – and return the land of Gloriana to the old faith, Roman Catholicism.

night-watch-coverFor all that the era was in my lifetime, the 1950s may just as well be the 1650s given the gulf between then and the modern world. In Nightwatch David C Taylor takes us back to New York in 1954, and we follow a convincingly tough and hard-nosed NYPD cop, Michael Cassidy, who becomes involved in a case which is way, way above his relatively humble pay grade. There were many former Nazis who escaped Nuremburg and had vanished into the ether by 1954 and although many of them were undoubtedly bastards, the sinister folk in American intelligence agencies gave them a lifeline by making sure that they became their bastards. Awkwardly for the CIA, there were also survivors of Hitler’s death camps who had made their way to America, and although they may have been scratching a relatively meagre living, they still had access to information and a burning desire for revenge. Cassidy battles both the indifference of his bosses and the unwanted attention of some very powerful people as he tries to solve a series of murders and make his streets a little less mean.

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Click the text image above to link to my review of The Mathematical Bridge.

THE HOCUS GIRL . . . Between the covers

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I redt was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that Britain had anything like an organised police force. The Hocus Girl is set well before that time, and even a developing community like Leeds relied largely on local Constables and The Watch – both institutions being badly paid, unsupported and mostly staffed by elderly individuals who would dodder a mile to avoid any form of trouble or confrontation. There were, however, men known as Thieftakers. The title is self-explanatory. They were men who knew how to handle themselves. They were employed privately, and were outside of the rudimentary criminal justice system.

THG coverSuch a man is Simon Westow. He is paid, cash in hand, to recover stolen goods, by whatever means necessary. His home town of Leeds is changing at an alarming rate as mechanised cloth mills replace the cottage weavers, and send smoke belching into the sky and chemicals into the rivers. We first met Westow in The Hanging Psalm, and there we were also introduced to young woman called Jane. She is a reject, a loner, and she is also prone to what we now call self-harm. She is a girl of the streets, but not in a sexual way; she knows every nook, cranny, and ginnel of the city; as she shrugs herself into her shawl, she can become invisible and anonymous. Her sixth sense for recognising danger and her capacity for violence – usually via a wickedly honed knife – makes her an invaluable ally to Westow. I have spent many enjoyable hours reading the author’s books, and it is my view that Jane is the darkest and most complex character he has created. In many ways The Hocus Girl is all about her.

T redhe 1820s were a time of great domestic upheaval in Britain. The industrial revolution was in its infancy but was already turning society on its head. The establishment was wary of challenge, and when Davey Ashton, a Leeds man with revolutionary ideas is arrested, Simon Westow – a long time friend – comes to his aid. As Ashton languishes in the filthy cell beneath Leeds Moot Hall, Westow discovers that he is treading new ground – political conspiracy and the work of an agent provocateur.

The books of Chris Nickson which are set in the nineteenth century have echoes of Blake contrasting England’s “green and pleasant land ” with the “dark satanic mills”. Yes, scholars will tell us that this is metaphor, and that the Blake’s mills were the churches and chapels of organised religion, but a more literal interpretation works, too. By the time we follow the career of Tom Harper, all the green has turned black, and the pounding of the heavy machinery is a soundtrack which only ceases on high days and holidays. Simon Westow, on the other hand, half a century or more earlier, sees a Leeds where twenty minutes walk will still find you a cottage built of stone that is still golden and unblackened by industrial soot. There are still becks and streams which run clear, uncoloured by cloth dyes and industrial sludge. Just occasionally – very occasionally – there is an old woman still working on her hand loom, determined and defiant in the face of mechanised ‘progress’.

“Up on a ridge, a large steam engine thudded, powering a hoist. A single stone chimney rose, belching out its smoke. No grass anywhere. The land seemed desolate and wasted, people by miners in pale trousers ans waistcoats, blue kerchiefs knotted at the neck. Women and children bent over heaps of coal, breaking up bog black chunks as they sorted them.

This was progress, Simon thought as he watched. It looked more like a vision of hell on earth.”

I red am not sure if Nickson would have been battling with the Luddites as they fought to hold back mechanisation. He is too intelligent a writer to be unaware that the pre-industrial age may have had its golden aspects but life, for the poor man, was still nasty, brutish and short. His anger at the results of ordinary people being sucked into cities such as Leeds to be set to work tending the clattering looms and feeding the furnaces is palpable. Chris Nickson is a political writer of almost religious intensity who, paradoxically, never preaches. He lets his characters have their hour on the stage, and lets us make of it what we will. The Hocus Girl is powerful, persuasive and almost impossible to put down. It is published by Severn House and is available now.

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